Twenty Years Ago This Week

I carry some of my gear to and from the lunchtime basketball game in a red and white canvas-and-mesh bag. The zipper doesn't work, and hasn't for years, and the logo on the side is almost worn off, but if you look closely, you can still make out the New York State Public High School Athletic Association logo.

The bag was a freebie when my high school basketball team played in the NYSPHSAA championships in my senior year. That was twenty years ago this week-- I'm pretty sure that bag is older than some of the students who play with us at lunchtime.

I should note that I was a deep bench player on a very good team. There was a running joke among those of us riding the pine that I never saw the court until after my father stomped out of the gym in disgust that we were up by thirty and the starters were still in the game. It wasn't far from the truth, though there were a couple of guys who got even less time than I did.

We had had a good team my junior year, and made it to the Sectional championship, held in the Broome County Arena, which was as big a deal as any of us had really considered. Senior year, we had a ridiculously good team, and just blew out a bunch of teams that had given us tough games the year before. And the teams that we beat soundly the previous year... The score of one of our games was reported on the evening news as "Whitney Point beats Deposit 95-30. That's not a misprint, folks, it was ninety-five to thirty."

(The second game against Deposit, at their place, we broke 100, which was probably the on-court highlight of my season-- I got fouled when we had 99 points, and went to the line for a one-and-one. I bricked the first free throw so badly that the rebound came right back to me, and I got fouled again. I hit the next two.)

We blew through the league undefeated, and won the championship game (against the best team in the other half of the Susquenango League) by a whole bunch. That was a bizarre game in a bunch of ways, but the thing I remember most was how tired I was. Earlier that day, one of the middle school teachers had called our house to ask my father to come be the tenth man in a pick-up game. He had hurt his back, though, so he sent me instead-- I figured "It's the league championship-- I'm not getting in the game," so I went and played pick-up for a couple of hours. Five minutes into the first quarter, we were up fifteen, and I said "Holy shit, I'm going to end up playing..." My legs were killing me, and there was no way I was going to be any good.

A few minutes after that, we noticed a weird smell-- there was some sort of gas leak somewhere in the gym. Play was stopped, the gym was evacuated, and we spent half an hour playing Duck-Duck-Goose (seriously) with the opposing team in the middle school gym, before they called the game off for the night, and we came back the next day. I skipped the pick-up game the second day, and got to play a little in the second half.

We cruised through the sectionals, and won in the Arena (I didn't score, but I did get a couple of shots off), and I got to help cut down the net, so I have a rough idea of what that's like. Then we were into the State tournament, which meant a couple of games down in Broome County, which we won, and then we found ourselves going to the State Championships in Glens Falls, about an hour north of where I'm typing this now.

It's a little difficult to describe how big a deal this was. This wasn't a full-on Hoosiers story, because we only played other schools from Class C, but there was more than a little Hoosiers to it, a fact that the local media didn't fail to pick up on. We were a much more rural district than any of the other schools we were playing against-- to give you an idea of how rural, when we got on the Thruway, one of the guys on the team got all goggle-eyed because he had never seen a toll both before.

Our first game was against Wyandanch, a school from Long Island, very close to the city. Most of their players were black, which was a little unusual, and their star forward had a scholarship offer from Loyola Marymount, which was a big deal at the time.

I remember exactly two things about that game: the very first play, and the last play. Wyandanch got the opening tip, and the Loyola Marymount guy immediately pulled up from about six feet beyond the three-point line and shot it. He missed, but all of our jaws dropped.

The other thing I remember is the end of the game. We had the ball in the final minute, with the score tied, and our coach called for the clock-killing play-- just moving the ball around the outside, without trying to score, until it was time to go for the last shot. The guys passed the ball around for a while, and then threw it down into the corner to one of our forwards. Who, despite all the stuff he'd been told in the last time-out, drove down the baseline to the hoop.

This was the classic "No, No, NO-- YES!!!!" play, as he got by his man, and made the lay-up, with something like ten or fifteen second left. I don't remember what Wyandanch's final attempt was like, but they missed it, and we won. I remember lots of jumping around, and running around the court.

They put us up in a hotel for the night, and we came back the next night against Lyons, a team from out near Rochester someplace. Again, I don't remember much of the game clearly, other than that we were up by something like 14 at the end of the third quarter, and I thought to myself "Holy shit, I'm going to get to play in a state championship game."

They absolutely blitzed us in that final quarter. We ended up losing by six (as you can see on the tournament history web site.

That was, as you might imagine, pretty crushing. It was a quiet and dispirited bus ride back home. We were eight minutes away from 25-0, but ended up 24-1 (Lyons did the same thing to the Catholic school champs the next weekend, falling way behind and winning in the fourth quarter, but that was small comfort).

That's not the end of the story, though. As we were coming back over Route 206 into Whitney Point, between Triangle and Whitney Point, we saw flashing lights up ahead. There was a fire truck blocking the road at a little pull-off point-- basically just a wide spot in the road, where farmers sometimes left trucks or trailers that weren't immediately needed-- and a whole bunch of cars. The bus stopped, and one of the firemen came over to the bus.

"This the Whitney Point basketball team?" he asked. "We're here to escort you back into town." The cars turned out to be all of our parents, and a bunch of other fans, and the fire truck led a little parade back to the high school, where they had more food waiting.

It was corny as all hell-- I mean, straight out of Hollywood cheese-- but I can't tell you how much that meant then. I still get a little sentimental about it every time I drive past that spot (which is to say, every time we go to visit my parents, as that's the route I always take).

So, that's the story of my red gym bag. I'm skipping over a lot of teen angst here-- I was not as Zen about my playing time when all this was happening as I am now, and my relationship with the basketball program was not without its stormy moments (I got us all kicked out of practice once...)-- but in the end, that whole experience meant the world to me. Which is why I carry my stuff to the gym in a bag that's older than some of the kids I play against, and will keep doing so until the thing falls apart completely.

(As a postscript, I should note that the team went back to Glens Falls two more times in the next four years, and actually won the Class C state title in 1993, behind the younger brother of one of the guys I played with. Not long after that, Whitney Point had to move up to Class B, and into a different league, and they haven't won much of anything since. But for five years, we kicked ass...)

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As another deep bench player - singularity deep - and being from the Rochester area, I can empathize. Lyons was in our league and we regularly got beaten like a drum. In fact, most of my varsity game time experience came in the last 30 seconds of games against Lyons.

I shoulda just stuck with track...

Interestingly enough, Lyons is where Jim Boeheim is from.

This story teared me up Chad! I know the story all too well and couldn't tell it much different. Thanks for sharing!

By luke baxter (not verified) on 02 Oct 2009 #permalink